Detail from a contemporary fake miniature, purporting to be from the 17th-century, depicting Ottoman-era scholars observing the night sky through telescopes. Allegedly from the Istanbul University Library. Photo by DEA/Getty
Fake miniatures depicting Islamic science have found their way into the most august of libraries and history books. How?
As I prepared to teach my class ‘Science and Islam’ last spring, I noticed something peculiar about the book I was about to assign to my students. It wasn’t the text – a wonderful translation of a medieval Arabic encyclopaedia – but the cover. Its illustration showed scholars in turbans and medieval Middle Eastern dress, examining the starry sky through telescopes. The miniature purported to be from the premodern Middle East, but something was off.
Besides the colours being a bit too vivid, and the brushstrokes a little too clean, what perturbed me were the telescopes. The telescope was known in the Middle East after Galileo developed it in the 17th century, but almost no illustrations or miniatures ever depicted such an object. When I tracked down the full image, two more figures emerged: one also looking through a telescope, while the other jotted down notes while his hand spun a globe – another instrument that was rarely drawn. The starkest contradiction, however, was the quill in the fourth figure’s hand. Middle Eastern scholars had always used reed pens to write. By now there was no denying it: the cover illustration was a modern-day forgery, masquerading as a medieval illustration.
The full image of the 21st century fake Ottoman miniature, purporting to be from the 17th century. Allegedly from the Istanbul University Library. Photo by DEA/Getty
The fake miniature depicting Muslim astronomers is far from an isolated case. One popular image floating around Facebook and Pinterest has worm-like demons cavorting inside a molar. It claims to illustrate the Ottoman conception of dental cavities, a rendition of which has now entered Oxford’s Bodleian Library as part of its collection on ‘Masterpieces of the non-Western book’. Another shows a physician treating a man with what appears to be smallpox. These contemporary images are in fact not ‘reproductions’ but ‘productions’ and even fakes – made to appeal to a contemporary audience by claiming to depict the science of a distant Islamic past.
A fake miniature depicting the preparation of medicines for the treatment of a patient suffering from smallpox, purportedly from the Canon of Medicine by Avicenna (980-1037). Allegedly in the Istanbul University Library. Photo by Getty
From Istanbul’s tourist shops, these works have ventured far afield. They have have found their way into conference posters, education websites, and museum and library collections. The problem goes beyond gullible tourists and the occasional academic being duped: many of those who study and publicly present the history of Islamic science have committed themselves to a similar sort of fakery. There now exist entire museums filled with reimagined objects, fashioned in the past 20 years but intended to represent the venerable scientific traditions of the Islamic world.
The irony is that these fake miniatures and objects are the product of a well-intentioned desire: a desire to integrate Muslims into a global political community through the universal narrative of science. That wish seems all the more pressing in the face of a rising tide of Islamophobia. But what happens when we start fabricating objects for the tales we want to tell? Why do we reject the real material remnants of the Islamic past for their confected counterparts? What exactly is the picture of science in Islam that are we hoping to find? These fakes reveal more than just a preference for fiction over truth. Instead, they point to a larger problem about the expectations that scholars and the public alike saddle upon the Islamic past and its scientific legacy.
There aren’t many books left in the old booksellers’ market in Istanbul today – but there are quite a few fake miniatures, sold to the tourists flocking to the Grand Bazaar next door. Some of these miniatures show images of ships or monsters, while others prompt a juvenile giggle with their display of sexual acts. Often, they’re accompanied by some gibberish Arabic written in a shaky hand. Many, perhaps the majority, are depictions of science in the Middle East: a pharmacist selling drugs to turbaned men, a doctor castrating a hermaphrodite, a group of scholars gazing through a telescope or gathering around a map…